kintsukuroi as more than pottery

In our world today, most would never think of keeping something that is shattered or imperfect. If we do, it is usually because it holds some sentimental value, we’ve carefully repaired it with super glue, or we just can’t afford to replace it. But most frequently we simply dispose of the broken item and replace it with a new, perfect one. This disposal is so much a part of our culture that it permeates beyond material possessions to relationships that are broken or lacking the perfection have been taught to expect — the happily ever after — that we would even prefer to dispose of our somewhat imperfect partner and relationship rather than working on it.

I want to be perfectly clear, though, that this is not to say there aren’t times when toxic, abusive, unbearable, unfulfilling, or otherwise dead relationships absolutely should end, because there are times when a relationship must end for the health and well-being one or all parties involved, including children, because there are times when staying would mean being broken regularly and never having the chance to be put back together again, because staying is no longer healthy, because one or both parties have become incompatible, or because although the adults could take it, the relationship involves children and staying is teaching them that toxic and love are the same thing. They are not.

The idea that people and objects cannot have intrinsic beauty or are no longer worth possessing when they are broken and imperfect is an idea that is not universally accepted.

I, for one, reject the idea that perfection is necessary or even desirable but instead find beauty in the imperfect.

Kintsukuroi (金繕い, “golden repair”), also called Kintsugi (金継ぎ, “golden joinery”), is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery in such a way as to make it appear that the pieces have been rejoined with gold. I had heard of Kintsukuroi before last year and often used it as a metaphor for my own writing here and with students who would be overly focused on perfection, but it took a little digging to find the story of where it began.

I was fascinated to discover a military connection to this beautiful art form because the juxtaposition of delicate beauty and imperfection lined up against military strength is simply too delightful and pertinent —

Like a flower on a battlefield.

A story is told of a beautiful teabowl that was the favorite of a military ruler named Toyotomi Hideyoshi. During a celebration one day at his home, the bowl was accidentally dropped by a page, breaking the bowl into five pieces. No one breathed as they all waited for Hideyoshi, who was known for having fiery temper, to fly into a rage, fearing for the page’s life. As they waited with bated breath, a quick witted guest, Hosokawa Yusai, spouted off an amusing poem in a play on words from a famous verse about the accident which caused everyone, including Hideyoshi, to laugh. That verse became the origin of the bowl’s name: Tsutsui Zutsu. “Furthermore, the bowl stood as talismanic proof that imagination and language had the power to make ill fortune good” (pg. 10, The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics).

Nevertheless, Hideyoshi wanted his favorite bowl and posed a challenge to find a way to mend the 5 broken pieces beautifully. After multiple artisans tried and failed to restore the bowl to use and beauty, one discovered a method of glueing the pieces with lacquer and brushing the paste with powdered gold while it was still sticky giving the bowl the appearance of having been glued together with ribbons of gold.

Having been mended with gold, the break, rather than diminishing the bowl’s beauty, added beauty and value to the bowl.

The teabowl had become more beautiful for having been broken and each time the pieces broke apart again, they were lovingly mended once more adding layers to the rich history in the story of the Tsutsui Zutsu.

The true and memorable life of the Tsutsui Zutsu teabowl began not when it was made and cherished in its perfection but the moment it was dropped and broken.

Since that time, Kintsukuroi bowls have been used and cherished having been passed on for generations because of the firm belief that when something has suffered damage, it becomes more beautiful.

As a philosophy of living, Kintsukuroi is similar to wabi-sabi, which is the embrace of the flawed and imperfect, in that it treats brokenness and the repair of brokenness as part of a history that should be cherished and celebrated as opposed to treating it as something that must be hidden, disguised, or denied. This is a philosophy that I whole heartedly have embraced as I’ve journeyed through the proverbial wilderness as a patient with multiple rare autoimmune conditions that have left my body broken and that necessitated the amputation of my left leg. I have seen so many people on my journey put on a mask in an attempt to prove to themselves and the world that they are still whole and perfect, that they have not been broken, not realizing that part of their beauty and value, part of their wisdom and story, is in the brokenness they possess so long as they pick up the pieces and put themselves back together. I have also seen countless men and women hold onto dead or dying relationships, relationships that in the least are unfulfilling and in the worst are riddled with toxicity and abuse, held back from stepping away for fear of appearing to have failed or for fear of people recognizing the brokenness therein. It’s something that has truly permeated our society that we feel insecure and shame at the idea of imperfection and being seen for our flaws and wounds, a fact I believe has contributed to the mental health crisis we see in society today.

I tell the stories of my brokenness honestly and openly because I see the beauty in my life and in my journey.

These things haven’t taken anything away from who and what I am but instead have added more beauty to all that is me.

My damage has made me more beautiful.

I have heard Kintsukuroi called “the art of precious scars” and it is everything I wish to embody in my journey through life and what I project into the world.

My true life began the day I embraced my brokenness and imperfection and chose to pick up the pieces to put myself together again, the day I chose to let my brokenness shine.

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